So-called healthy products with added sterols and stanols lower cholesterol, but could increase the risk of heart disease.
Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) asked the European Food Safety Authority to perform a safety review of sterols and stanols because they could lead to heart disease.
Sterols are naturally occurring chemicals in plants, and are found in plant oils, nuts, seeds, peanuts, and fruits and vegetables. Sterols include beta-sitosterol, campesterol and stigmasterol, while stanols are derived from sterols. Sterols and stanols have also been added to products such as margarine, juices, and breads, and these are marketed as cholesterol lowering products.
Eating products with added sterols and stanols can cause serious cardiovascular problems, especially in children who don’t have high cholesterol levels.
Part of the research that BfR cited was published in the journal Atherosclerosis by Dr. Kelly of the University Eye Clinic in Maastricht, The Netherlands. Patients were divided into three groups where one group ate sterol-enriched margarine, another group consumed stanol-enriched margarine, and a third group consumed non-enriched margarine. After 85 weeks, patients with high campesterol concentrations were found to have increased retinal venular diameter, a change which some research shows is indicative of cardiovascular damage.
Other recent research published in the journal Cardiovascular Research also shows that sterol-fed mice had an increase in pro-atherogenic immune cells (a monocyte subpopulation), and higher vascular superoxide and lipid hydroperoxide production. Mice that had either sterols or stanols had an impaired ability to relax their blood vessels. All these changes are extremely toxic to the cardiovascular system.
Another study on men with a high risk of heart disease also showed that increased sitosterol concentrations were linked to a higher incidence of coronary events.
Cholesterol is an essential compound, and lowering it too much can lead to several physical and psychological problems. Children should avoid products with added sterols and stanols, as well as any product that claims to lower cholesterol. Those with low to normal cholesterol levels, and those with high risk of heart disease should also avoid these products.
Consumers should concentrate on maintaining healthy blood pressure and lowering inflammation, and unfortunately sterols cause higher blood pressure and inflammation. Until further evidence can show their safety, products with added sterols and stanols should be avoided.